Picture of Naturopathic Doctor

What is a Naturopathic Doctor?

Naturopathic doctors, or naturopaths, provide health care for the entire family.

Many people think of them as the general practitioners of the alternative medicine world. However, naturopaths can also be specialists in areas such as digestive health, gynecology, respiratory health, cardiovascular health, urology, pediatrics, dermatology and musculoskeletal health.  In most state, they can also perform minor surgery and I.V. therapy.

The important thing to remember is that a naturopath can help you explore your health concerns and help you find ways to resolve them. They have many natural tools at their disposal to help you become healthy again and remain healthy.

Alternative medicine has a lot to offer you, such as herbal therapy, nutrition and lifestyle counseling, homeopathy, hydrotherapy and physical therapy.  These are all natural methods that are extremely effective yet have minimal to no side effects.  They also tend to be much less expensive in the long run than drugs and surgery.

Naturopathic doctors can work with your primary doctor to help reduce the need for prescription medication.  They can help you understand drug interactions and side effects, which is helpful in identifying why you may be experiencing the symptoms you are worried about.

In short, a naturopathic doctor is an invaluable asset in your quest to live a healthier and more fulfilling life.

How are naturopathic doctors educated?

Naturopathic doctors must complete a rigorous four-year curriculum at an educational institution certified by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education and pass an exam administered by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners.

Students of alternative medicine study many of the same topics as their counterparts at traditional medical schools. In addition, they also study natural and holistic healing methods which will become their main tools for helping people become and remain healthy.

The first two years of study are devoted to medical science courses such as anatomy, dissection, pathology, physiology, biochemistry, histology, neuroscience, pharmacology, clinical diagnosis and embryology. In addition to these courses, the naturopathic student takes courses in herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutritional science, health counseling, hydrotherapy and physical medicine.

In their last two years of school, students work in various naturopathic clinics throughout the community as well as in the main clinic.  They also continue their studies in subjects such as upper respiratory system disorders and diseases, gastroenterology, neurology, cardiology, urology, dermatology, obstetrics, natural childbirth and minor surgery.

Naturopathic students also devote many class hours to soft tissue work and manipulation of the joints, as well as ultrasound, cold laser treatments and other types of physical therapy.

At the end of the four-year course of medical study, the naturopathic student is awarded the title of “Doctor of Naturopathy”, or “N.D.”.

For state licensure, the newly minted naturopathic doctor passes the naturopathic clinical boards, usually within six months of earning the degree.

The naturopathic doctor is well trained not only in the current western medical approach but also in the many ways of natural healing.

Naturopaths adhere to Naturopathic Principles

All naturopathic doctors adhere to treatment guidelines, called the Naturopathic Principles. These include:

  • The Healing Power of Nature – Naturopaths believe that the ability to heal lies within every person.  In other words, naturopaths assist a patient’s body in its healing process.
  • First Do No Harm – Any treatments performed by the naturopath shall not harm the patient. While this is part of the hippocratic oath adhered to by the traditional medical establishment, it has deeper meaning for the naturopathic doctor. In particular, it means that the methods chosen should support the healing process as best as possible while minimizing any harmful effects.
  • Identify and Treat the Cause – The naturopathic doctor looks for the root cause of symptoms. Many times what often appears as a cause is actually another symptom, not the true root cause. For instance, an allergic reaction may be triggered by food ingested.  However, although the food may be the trigger for the symptom, the root cause may actually be an overloaded immune system that has become over reactive. Therefore, the naturopath would seek to strengthen the patient’s immune system in order to reduce the severity and frequency of allergic reactions.
  • Treat the Whole Person – The naturopathic doctor looks at the patient’s total health profile, not just the visible symptoms. What this means is that it is rare for a person to have just one symptom, such as a headache.  The naturopathic interview often reveals many more symptoms of ill health the patient may not be aware of because the primary symptom is so strong. In order to treat the one symptom, the headache, the naturopathic doctor also addresses related symptoms such as irritability, interrupted sleep, digestive disturbance and so forth.
  • Doctor as Teacher – The naturopathic doctor considers herself a teacher as well.  The goal is not just to help the patient heal but also to give the patient tools to remain healthy. Dialog between the patient and the doctor is essential.  The patient is encouraged to ask the doctor for answers to all of his questions regarding his health. The naturopathic doctor will take the time to answer all these questions and encourage the patient to become an active participant in his own healing process.
  • Prevention – As the old saw goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The naturopathic doctor provides the patient with a road map to health. There is much a person can to do avoid becoming seriously ill.  The naturopathic office is the place to explore all the options and how to incorporate them into a healthy lifestyle.

What to expect during your first naturopathic appointment

Your first visit with a naturopathic doctor is your opportunity to find out how you can recover from your illness using natural therapies and optimize your health through nutrition and lifestyle choices.

During your first visit to a naturopath, you will likely participate in an interview lasting approximately 45-60 minutes. The reason for this interview is to provide your naturopathic doctor with as much information about your health and lifestyle as possible.  She really wants to get to know you so that she can provide you the best care possible.

Your naturopath will ask you questions about the following topics:

  • Your current health condition,
  • Medications and supplements you are currently taking or have taken recently,
  • Your history of hospitalizations and injuries,
  • Your other health care providers,
  • Your daily food and fluid intake,
  • Your sleep habits,
  • Stressors in your life,
  • Family medical history,
  • Your lifestyle, such as exercise, type of job, relationships and recreational activities.

At the end of the interview, the naturopathic doctor will have a pretty good idea about your health and the factors that may be contributing any conditions you may currently be experiencing.  She will then be able to explore with you alternative medical therapies that can improve your health and help you remain healthy.

Following the interview, your naturopath will take your vitals, such as blood pressure, pulse and temperature, as well as listen to your heart and lungs, especially if you have a history of high or low blood pressure, breathing problems or a heart condition.

The rest of the physical exam will focus on any areas about which you are concerned.

The naturopathic doctor may also order some labs or imaging, or seek relevant information from any other doctors who have ordered lab or imaging tests for you.

An important part of naturopathic care is patient education. Hence, the rest of the visit is devoted to helping you understand what may be the cause of your illness and what natural therapies will best help you become healthy again.

The naturopathic doctor invites you to take an active role in your own healing process. You live in your body and know what feels right and what does not. Your input is of tremendous help in determining what ails you and what causes the distress and ultimately what therapies will most assist your body in its healing process.

(Photo Credit: Adrian Clark; CC 2.0)